SPARE PARTS is a movie that’s based on the real life adventure of four undocumented Mexican-American teenagers from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix who start a robotics club. They build a robot out of PVC piping and used car parts, and enter a NASA-sponsored national robotics competition, pitted against the likes of MIT. And they win it all.
The story was originally told in Joshua Davis’ piece in Wired Magazine called “La Vida Robot” in 2004. While several bids were made to create this movie, including one by Salma Hayak, it was Davis’ manager who won the bid. He and his partner then hired screenwriter Elissa Matsueda – who spent quite a bit of time with the real life robotics team and found a strong connection with them.
“Reality was often better than anything I could’ve invented.” Elissa Matsueda
The story line reveals each character’s own struggles, challenges and hopes. As undocumented students, they each had challenges that many undocumented students can relate to today. Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega) gets rejected from the Army despite being a star in his high school’s ROTC program. Throughout the movie, the tone often shifts when it is apparent that yet again, the students really do fear being deported at an moment. Yet, they have struggles that are universal, too, like the navigating relationships with girls, each other and their parents.
SPARE PARTS MOVIE CAST
George Lopez plays the coach, Fredi Cameron, who in real life was actually two coaches but it didn’t make sense in this story line to have two so Matsueda went with one. Lopez delivers a different performance than you may be accustomed to seeing him. While there are moments of comedy, his character comes with its own complexities which call for a more dramatic performance.
Casting Director JC Cantu, who has worked with Robert Rodriguez for years, was enlisted to cast the four very different young Latino actors; Cristian, the brain, Lorenzo, the ex-gang member, Oscar, the ROTC cadet and Luis, the heavy.
Cristian is played by David del Rio a Miami native who has been working regularly in TV and film. Lorenzo is played by Jose Julian who played the son of Damien Bichir in A BETTER LIFE (another movie telling the story of undocumented families). Julian’s mother came to American without a visa so he related personally to this story.
Carlos PenaVega plays the role of Oscar and his real life wife, Alexa PenaVega, plays his girlfriend Karla in the movie. Needless to say, these two have amazing chemistry on the screen. Many young fans will recognize Carlos from BIG TIME RUSH as well as Alexa who also starred in Robert Rodriguez’s SPY KIDS and is currently in NASHVILLE (ABC’s popular TV drama series).
In the real life Luis is recruited because the team needs someone to do the heavy lifting. For the movie, Cantu knew finding a boy-faced, physically massive Latino actor would nearly impossible. Instead, he held a casting call in Rio Grande Valley in Texas. (How many times have I told you, queridos, ‘Tejanos are everywhere’?) Luis is played by Oscar Gutierrez who showed up to the casting call and was selected almost immediately.
Two more reasons to watch SPARE PARTS are Marisa Tomei and Jamie Lee Curtis. Marisa plays the math teacher Gwen and delivers a solid performance of compassion and strength that a good teacher should have. And Jamie Lee Curtis brings the comedy as the principal of the school but she also means business and gets the job done.
And Esai Morales. I always judge actors on whether or not I’ll hate their character even though I’m fond of the actor. I hated Mr. Santillan, Lorenzo’s father. But I still love Esai Morales. In fact, it was in his scenes that brought on the tears for me. He plays a single father who is an alcoholic and his burden of having to keep his undocumented son safe is not hidden. Morales isn’t on screen much in the movie but his scenes are intense.
WHY I’LL GO SEE THIS MOVIE AGAIN
What carries this movie is telling of the real facets of an undocumented student’s life – and the effect it has on anyone who cares for them. This movie will put a
new different face on who an undocumented citizen is. As mentioned earlier, undocumented students have unique obstacles as well as universal ones. Some audience members may relate more than others but there’s definitely something for everyone in this movie – if you value hard work, family and dreams.
Admittedly, a few moments may be cliche but that’s kind of expected in an underdog story. What’s not cliche is the reason these students won. I’ve mentioned these students challenges and obstacles but let’s not forget that in the end THEY WIN IT ALL. Why? Because of who they really are. Their budget to build this underwater robot was $800. They used PVC pipe and tampons. (Yes, tampons. It’s a great scene!) It’s not that they are Mexican and win that’s important. It’s that this story reveals that true talent and intelligence is hidden within these amazing students who live in fear every day of being deported.
It is because of their circumstances, these four students won it all. They built the winning robot using their own resources – including their own intelligence and skills. It was the only thing they knew how to do.
These accidental robotic champions are the heroes in this movie. ¡Miran! ¡Los Mexicanos son los campeones! To all those who are seeking and calling for positive roles for Latinos to play in Hollywood, get to the theaters THIS weekend! Opening weekend is such an important weekend for movies. I, for one, will be taking my kids to see this movie – for more reasons than one.
“The story of the Carl Hayden Robotics Team is one that needs to be told. Young Latinos have much to contribute to the tech world.” ~ Voto Latino President and CEO, María Teresa Kumar
If you are looking for another education advocate’s review of this movie, check out SA Charter Moms review of SPARE PARTS.